Author Archives: Kate Leary

Sanctuary

As the effects of the president’s cruel and regressive executive order on immigration are becoming clear, I’m proud to live in a town that’s ready to stand up for what’s right. This week, our Board of Selectmen voted to cosponsor a warrant article with the Human Rights Commision that would make Arlington a Sanctuary Town.

The final language and whether the Board will recommend a yes vote still need to be worked out, but based on the discussion, I’m optimistic that I will have the chance to vote in favor of this article in Town Meeting this spring. The Arlington Police Department already follows these practices, but the warrant article would codify them and send a powerful message. Adopting Sanctuary Town status is not without risk, since the president is threatening to pull federal funds from sanctuary cities and towns. Whether he can do this remains to be seen. I’ve reached out to local officials to see if there’s anything voters or Town Meeting Members can do to help, and if I hear of anything I’ll let locals know.

But I’m excited to think of what could happen if other cities and towns became sanctuaries. California is blanketed with sanctuary cities and towns. A proponent of the warrant article said at the meeting that in Massachusetts, Amherst, Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, Lawrence, Northampton, Orleans, Somerville, Springfield, and Holyoke offer this kind of protection. Newton and Salem are currently considering similar proposals.

If your town is not on this list, would you consider reaching out to your town leaders to see if it’s in the works or what you can do to help make it happen? Their email addresses are easy to find on town websites. Even if elected officials are not supportive, citizens can sponsor warrant articles. Generally town websites or the clerk’s office can give you information about that. It’s always great to have buy-in from the electeds, but it’s not a requirement. Arlington citizens are the ones who started the movement here (I wish I had been one of them). As towns gear up for their spring meetings, the timing is right. I’m personally feeling overwhelmed by where to begin to oppose this administration’s bigotry and authoritarian bent. I’m grateful that my senators and representatives are already fighting the good fight. I don’t need to call them. Reaching out to your elected town leaders about this issue is a small local action. This movement could be very powerful if enough cities and towns join in.

The Ambiguous Epiphany

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When I was a child growing up Catholic, the Feast of the Epiphany struck me as an afterthought. December was all about the thrilling run-up of Advent, characterized by candle lighting and singing at mass and by lists for Santa and chocolate-filled calendars at home. Finally there was the tremendous climax of Christmas. Jesus is born! Santa is here!

After that, it was all denouement. Epiphany was when our Christmas tree—by then shedding needles at an alarming rate—finally hit the curb. It was also the last little burst of festivity at church before the long stretch of Ordinary Time. The three wise men had made it to Bethlehem. My mother or maybe a priest explained that in many cultures, Christians waited until the Epiphany on January 6 (also known as Little Christmas, Twelfth Night, and the Twelfth Day of Christmas) to exchange gifts. This was mildly interesting, but I wouldn’t be getting any more gifts, so it was hard to get too excited.

Now that I’m a lapsed Catholic fiction writer who still loves Christmas, I’m trying to figure out what stories to tell my kids about this season. I keep coming back to the Epiphany, which seems to me now fantastic and magical, a journey fraught with hardship and intrigue and faith and even espionage. When the Magi arrive in Jerusalem and ask King Herod, “Where is the infant king of the Jews?”, he is disturbed and sends them on to Bethlehem with instructions to report back when they find the baby. But after they meet the infant they’re warned in a dream not to return to Herod. They instead follow a different route back home. Herod intends to kill the baby, who he sees as a rival.

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Christmas with Alice Munro

Like many of Alice Munro’s stories, her Christmas stories are occupied with work and explore the subtleties of how work defines identity. Of the three stories I’ll discuss, “The Turkey Season” (1980) is the most explicitly about Christmas, ending with a snowy tableau on Christmas Eve. But the major function of Christmas in the narrative is to create demand for Christmas turkeys, which creates the need for turkey gutters, providing the narrator—a girl of fourteen—with her first job.

Inside the Turkey Barn, she learns about how people in her town are categorized—and what it means when people don’t fit into any of the accepted categories. Although she’s from the place, a small town in Ontario, she already knows she doesn’t fit in:

Work, to everybody I knew, meant doing things I was no good at doing, and work was what people prided themselves on and measured each other by. (It goes without saying that the things I was good at, like schoolwork, were suspect or held in plain contempt.)

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The Female Gaze and the Same Old Songs

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I recently went with my husband to a concert. The artist we saw writes gut-wrenching songs. His albums are full of fascinating characters and their stories, his voice invites the listener in, and he and his band put on a great show. But I got restless about half way through. “It’s just so masculine,” I said to my husband, and not long after that the inevitable guitar solo tradeoffs began.

I thought of a line from a talk Jill Soloway gave in September at the Toronto Film Festival, titled “The Female Gaze.” She describes sports as “men watching men do things that men like to watch men do.” These solos, and the way the two men stood there, guitar to guitar—locked in a competition that was more than a little homoerotic and that generated music that seemed utterly devoid of feeling—were not for me. I admit I was already on edge. Just a few days earlier, women had heard something that wasn’t for us—the misogynistic and explicit remarks Donald Trump made to Billy Bush on Access Hollywood.

All of this also made me think of Claire Vaye Watkins’ essay, “On Pandering,” which was widely circulated at about this time last year.

As a young woman I had one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime, though that’s not the right word, though neither is hobby or passion. I have practiced this activity with religious devotion and for longer than I can remember. I have been trying to give it up recently . . . since around the time my daughter was born. But nearly all of my life has been arranged around this activity. I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.

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Image: Conal Gallagher, 2010

Fracking, Glove Making, and Elevator Inspection: Industry in Novels

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I delighted in Alexandra Petri’s column, “An Easy Guide to Writing the Great American Novel.” A writer must be able to laugh, kindly, at herself, and perhaps less kindly at others, especially when those others are extremely successful.

One of Petri’s must-haves in the great American novel is a “painstaking description of an intricate craft or a science thing that the average reader will not be able to fact-check, which is fortunate because it is such a lovely metaphor.”

I hadn’t even realized this was a thing. Of course it is a thing, and I love it. And even worse, I should probably figure out a way to do it in my own novel, which is set largely in a recording studio. So far there is quite a lot of tape moving from reel to reel, with hissing and whirring and clicks and silences that are something more than silences. But the writers I admire do something much better. Instead of slathering details of the specialized trade everywhere, they distill it into one or two scenes that resonate through their novels without exhausting the reader.

In Heat and Light, Jennifer Haigh tells the story of a coal mining town gone bust and then seemingly reborn when a natural gas company starts buying up land rights. It’s a sweeping book, with a large cast of characters, and Haigh spends time building the characters and the world before she shows us fracking.

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Serial, Timelines, and Fiction

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In  “Route Talk,” an episode from the first season of Serial, Sarah Koenig and her producer attempt to recreate the state’s timeline of the murder of Hae Min Lee. As I listened to them test what was possible, I was struck by how similar their exercise was to one creative writers perform.

Whenever I move a scene, I have to rearrange the novel’s timeline. If I want a character to be a certain age at the time of a historical event, I have to live with (and keep track of) that birth year. It’s a painfully obvious point, but it can be an inconvenience for other aspects of the story. If I want people to go on vacation at a certain time, because it makes sense for the narrative, that needs to happen at a time of year when those characters would actually take a vacation. I am constantly squaring things up, and I misplace weeks and days with alarming frequency.

Writers have handled the problem of the timeline in many different ways. Joseph Heller handwrote a stunningly detailed outline of Catch-22, complete with a timeline. (It’s worth zooming in.) As freewheeling as Catch-22 seems, Heller kept careful track of details like the number of missions Yossarian had flown as the book progressed. 

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My Uncle’s Books

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A year and a half ago, my uncle Chuck died unexpectedly. My family wanted me to have his books because I was a reader like he had been, and I was also a writer. And I wanted the books, especially his Library of America books, which looked so lovely and uniform and canonical. More importantly, I wanted to continue the conversation we’d been having since I’d learned to read—the “what are you reading,” conversation—because we were both always reading something. We were insatiable. We understood this about each other. There were so many things I would miss about him, but I knew I would miss this conversation the most.

There were about two hundred Library of America books, and my family wanted me to take them all. My home is small. The bookshelves are in my small living room. My inheritance of books was a mixture of boon and responsibility and onslaught. I found a spot for another bookshelf behind the couch. I went through the Library of America books and chose the ones I thought I was most likely to read, all fiction. I stored the other half (George Washington’s diaries and the like) in my mom’s attic. She rarely offers attic space, but she knew I couldn’t stand the alternative just then.

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Time and Opening Chapters: Gaining Trust

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Lately I’ve been thinking about time in novels. How to manipulate it, whether it should be linear or nonlinear, and what that choice means for a story. I began to examine it more closely after a recent weekend novel workshop I took with Lauren Grodstein. Part of her advice was that I reconsider the timeline of my novel, which now progresses linearly. This suggestion is drastic enough that it could have been horrifying, but Lauren made her case so well that instead I’m excited to try it. 

Independent of this advice, I’ve been feeling more and more strongly that in the first chapter or two of a novel, the writer teaches the reader how to read the book, sets expectations, makes promises. I don’t mean the writer gives everything away. I do mean she establishes trust and provides a sort of map. 

The reader wants to know: what kind of book is this? Part of this question has to do with the story’s timeline. Is it the kind of story that jumps around in time? Is it the kind of story that moves forward linearly but then skips ten years, and then another ten? If we leave a time period will we circle back to it or is it gone forever? If the rules are established too late, the reader can become anxious and distracted, and at worst completely alienated. How can this be avoided? 

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Photo credit: Daniel Waters, Co.

When Parents Die: William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow and Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs

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Last week my friend’s mother died, with brutal speed, of cancer. Ten years ago, my father died of a neurological disease so drawn out and cruel that we all wished for its end. Parents die, usually before their children, and so both of these deaths were inevitable in one way or another. But as the narrator of William Maxwell’s novella, So Long, See You Tomorrow, says of his mother’s death, “the idea that kept recurring to me…was that I had inadvertently walked through a door that I shouldn’t have gone through and couldn’t get back to the place I hadn’t meant to leave.”

The narrator is ten when his mother dies of influenza during the epidemic of 1918. It’s an event from Maxwell’s own life. The story of her death is told in chapter two, and the narrator is defined by it. His father and older brother are distant and never speak to him about their shared loss. The book is ostensibly about a lurid murder that occurred in the narrator’s town, committed by the father of a boy he once knew. But his mother’s death permeates the novella. He spends half the book imagining the story of the crime, but in the final chapter we find him lying on an analyst’s couch. 

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Photo credit: Anathea Utley

The Art of the Sad Birthday

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Are you a writer looking for a situation with built-in irony and ample opportunities for subtext? Have you considered a melancholy birthday scene? I’ve collected a few merciless examples for consideration.

Referential,” by Lorrie Moore

Moore dives into the irony of the sad celebration in the first paragraph of the story, from her most recent collection, Bark.  

“Mania. For the third time in three years they talked in a frantic way about what would be a suitable birthday present for her deranged son. There was so little they were actually allowed to bring: almost everything could be transformed into a weapon and so most items had to be left at the front desk, and then, if requested, brought in later by a big blond aide, who would look the objects over beforehand for their wounding possibilities.”

The story is more about a flagging relationship than it is about her son, who is in an uneasy state of equilibrium when the story begins. The protagonist’s sort-of boyfriend, Pete, who retreated when her son grew ill, accompanies her on the visit. Pete is the only named character in the story. The son, in the grip of his illness, eschews subtext in conversation, asking Pete questions his mother never asks: “So where have you been?” and “Do you miss us?” However, the son believes that nearly everything, including the “soft deckle-edged book about Daniel Boone” his mother eventually settles on as a birthday gift, contains subtext meant only for him. She knows he’ll become obsessed with the messages he finds in it. Everything has wounding possibilities. 

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Photo credit: Omer Wazir